Inside the Collection

Sydney Observatory Star Camera

Casing for the Sydney Observatory astrograph
Casing for the Sydney Observatory astrograph. Collection, Powerhouse Museum

I think one of the most underrated curatorial skills is the ability to remain engaged in your current research while at the same time making mental notes of everything that wanders across your field of vision. Sometimes when you are visiting the stores something amazing may catch your eye and open up a new field of discovery but at other times the reverse is true and things you may have overlooked suddenly come alive when you start researching them.

Such was the case with this object. It may look like a length of sewage pipe but it is in fact the partial remains of Sydney Observatory’s astrograph, or star camera, one of the most important cameras ever made in Australia. However my first impressions of this amazing instrument were very different. When I began working on writing significance statements for Sydney Observatory instruments there were a number of objects like this one that had no photograph and were located in our stores some 32 kilometres away.

Sometimes it is essential to look at the object but in this instance I was able to progress without doing this because of the number of articles published by astronomers who had used the ‘star camera’, and one even published an entire book, with photographs, about it.

Star camera set up in observatory dome
Star camera set up in observatory dome

This was my first visual impression of the star camera and as you can see it was a truly formidable looking instrument. Starting in 1890 H. C. Russell and James Short used it to take over 20,000 negatives for the international project to record the positions of stars in the night sky. Even more impressive is the fact that although all the other observatories ordered star cameras from the instrument maker Howard Grubb, Sydney decided to make theirs here in Australia.

Before this almost all major telescopes were imported, but the star camera reflects the confidence Sydney now had in its own engineering firms. In the end only the Grubb lens and a Troughton and Simms tangent screw were made overseas with all the rest made by local Sydney firms and W. I. Masters, the instrument maker at The Sydney Observatory.

However this was a working instrument and not long after this picture was taken it was taken down and moved to new observatory some miles out of Sydney. Different lenses were experimented with and rehoused in the casing. In 1922 it was even packed onto a horse and cart and shipped to Queensland where it was set up at the racetrack in Goondiwindi to observe a solar eclipse.


Finally after a few weeks of research I decided it was time to make the pilgrimage to see this amazing instrument in the stores at Castle Hill. My shock at seeing what remained of the camera felt a bit like seeing a slaughtered animal and I now keep a much more open-mind when working among the objects on the museums shelves.

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